I’m not quite sure how is happened, but suddenly the talk and workshop I was presenting at Lismore’s Taproot Festival morphed into an intense Justice and Peace meeting. It was a privilege to experience depth of feeling that filled the room in the island’s heritage centre - heart of a literary and music celebration. People really do care about this world’s injustices.
The essence of my talk was the importance of giving a voice to the voiceless. Today we have the means to capture the lives of what I call ‘real’ people, and I’ve spent a lifetime attempting to do that – the witness of women in Croatia who saw their husbands and sons slaughtered before their eyes; the matrons in Romania blamed and belittled for the pitiful state of the country’s orphans, while the real responsibility lay with a dictator who denied the orphanages funding; the dead-eyed girls violated in Bosnia’s rape camps; the dying in Africa denied the drugs that kept alive HIV patients in the developed world.
More recently, I’ve written social histories, and the more research I do into the past, the more I understand the importance of those ‘real’ witnesses to the world’s events. But when there are no voices, there is no real memory of the work conditions, the hardships, the attitudes and prejudices. And then there can be no evidence on which to base change to achieve justice.
At the Lismore event, I had told the story of a four, or perhaps five times great grandfather of mine who drowned in a mining accident after a sudden flood in one of the coal seams. A newspaper report from the early 1800s gave the basic details , but what did his wife think when they brought home his belongings? Did they tell her that when they recovered the body a couple of weeks after the incident, the body was so rotted by the water that his feet came away in his shoes? Shoes – not boots. No steel toecaps.
I also read out the witness statements of men who gave evidence of a fatal accident at a lead mine in Strontian. This evidence moves me to tears, even though I have worked with it for several months as I got together my next book, which is a history of mining in Argyll. It moved others, too. The voice of a miner speaking across more that 160 years, telling us that the foreman laughed when he suggested he moved the rock that caused the fatality. That the danger of this unstable rock had been mentioned time and again. That the team was told to go ahead and blast a tunnel right in the path of the rock. The words of the dying man as he lay beneath the stone.
Health and safety gone mad? That phrase makes my blood boil – and clearly this rare voice of a man involved in such a situation (most of our history is told by those in charge, those who could write letters and reports and tell their own version of a situation to keep their own hands clean) sparked the passion for justice within the audience.
The Piper Alpha disaster, the Thalidomide tragedy, the injustices stirred by vocabulary that lead to crimes of hate against refugees and migrants – these and more came tumbling out. The Gaelic poet and academic Donald Meek sat to my right, the poet and novelist Norman Bissell was across the room, but it was the rest of the folk, the ‘real’ folk, whose voices rang out seeking justice in poetry and prose.
Every injustice deserves to be voiced and to be heard. And the truth of the injustices can only really be told by those who experience them. It’s our job to listen – and put our faith into action to sort the situation.